Photo by Amy Denney
With more students seeking educational opportunities, universities and colleges in the Northwest Austin region are focusing on how to differentiate themselves and ensure students are prepared to enter the local workforce.
Overall higher education enrollment in Texas increased by 20.5 percent from 1,218,626 million students in fall 2007 to 1,468,065 million in fall 2011, according to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which was created by the Texas Legislature in 1965 to provide leadership and coordination for the state’s higher education system.
Many higher education institutions are tracking the workforce needs in Austin to ensure their graduates have the right skill set to stand out among their peers.
“As many people who are going to get degrees, I’m not so sure just having a piece of paper anymore will be enough. It’s the competencies you bring out of that,” said Donald Christian, dean of the College of Business at Concordia University Texas.
Responding to community needs
South University honed in on Austin’s value on higher education when it chose the city for its newest campus, which opened November 2011, campus president Marie Neal said.
“The growth that’s here, that continues to happen, there’s going to be a need for education institutions,” she said.
Neal said that by the end of the year, South will be rolling out its program advisory committees, composed of local professionals and educators who will provide feedback on South’s programs.
“They will look at the curriculum and program outcomes and connect it to what is happening,” Neal said. “They can provide advice on what is happening and if the university does need to expand a program or offer the next level.”
South is already planning to expand its program offerings. In January, students can pursue a master’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s in information systems technology is on the horizon, Neal said.
At Concordia, developing Christian leaders has always been a high priority for the private, Lutheran-based liberal arts university, Christian said.
The university has unveiled several new programs in the past couple of years, including a Master in Business Administration that focuses on helping students become leaders in the community and its first online-only program, a master of education in differentiated instruction.
“I think our growth is about to start really happening online,” said Kristi Kirk, vice provost for student and enrollment support. “We wanted to wait and do that well.”
Enriching the student experience
At the Baylor Executive MBA program in Austin, Executive Director David Wallace said students benefit most with a maximum of 40 enrolled per two-year program.
“What we’re actually trying to do is continue to refine the quality of the students that are coming in,” he said. “We’re trying to expand the pool of candidates but still end up with that maximum of 40 students.”
He said the average student is 36 years old with five to eight years of leadership experience and has a family. Many students finance their education themselves as fewer employers offer a stipend to help cover the $84,000 cost.
“Prospective students are doing more due diligence on comparing programs,” Wallace said.
The University of Phoenix in Austin also relies on its partnerships with organizations to ensure students’ degrees are relevant, Campus Director Michael Cullup said.
“We need to make sure we have our ear to the ground and get feedback from our business community to make sure their skills are applicable,” he said.
Enrollment has remained at about 3,700 students at the Austin and Killeen campuses and online courses. Cullup said the growth the campuses see comes from an increasing number of students in their mid-20s.
“The generation coming up is trying to get into the workplace and not waiting to raise a family and seek education,” Director of Academic Affairs Rodney Luster said.
At least two higher education institutions are considering options for expanding their facilities.
Austin Community College completed the purchase of the 81-acre Highland Mall site and mall lease in August. The first renovation project is under way on the former JC Penney store where ACC plans to create a math emporium with classroom space. It will open to students in fall 2014, said Neil Vickers, associate vice president of finance and budget.
The college will be able to use part of the new space for classrooms while other campuses undergo renovations, he said.
One of those renovations could occur in the next five years at Northridge, ACC’s largest campus. That campus saw a 15 percent increase in student population to 10,252 students between 2007–11. Vickers said the ideal enrollment is 10,000 at Northridge.
At Concordia, the university is close to maxing out on facility space at its RM 620 campus, despite having relocated in 2008 from its Central Austin facility. Kirk said Concordia is in the process of purchasing 50-plus adjacent acres of land and is developing a master plan for the land.
“Our biggest immediate need is residence halls,” she said. “We are beyond capacity, and that continues to be one of our challenges of meeting the needs of students who really want that traditional college experience.”